F.A.C.E.S.: The Emotionally Intelligent Brain

Cross-posted from WinWinWorkplace.com.

There is a lot — although not enough — talk in the business world today about “emotional intelligence” and its importance in understanding what makes leaders transcend to the next level in driving performance and productivity within their organizations. From what I know as a psychologist, with an interest in neurobiology, I do not think of emotional intelligence without thinking about the brain. Daniel Siegel, M.D., is one of the cutting-edge leaders in this new area of study, called “Interpersonal Neurobiology.” In an article for the Psychiatric Annals (36:4 April 2006) Dr. Siegel wrote the following (I recommend reading it slowly):

An interpersonal neurobiology view of well-being holds that the complex, nonlinear system of the mind achieves states of self-organization by balancing the two opposing processes of differentiation and linkage. When separated areas of the brain are allowed to specialize in their function and then become linked together, the system is integrated. Integration brings with it a special state or functioning of the whole, which has the acronym of FACES: Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized and Stable. This coherent flow is bounded on one side by chaos and on the other by rigidity. In this manner we can envision a flow or river of well-being, with the two banks being chaos on the one side, rigidity on the other.

The focal point in this paragraph is the idea of a “complex non-linear mind” that is thoroughly “integrated.” Integration comes about when the special functions of the brain not only work well in their own right — an expression of “differentiation” — but are also connected and communicative — the essence of “linkage”: The resulting, truly integrated mind is “FACES” (Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable). As we consider these qualities of an integrated mind, let’s think also of a leader who has these five qualities working together as well:

  • Flexible — able to bend without breaking.
  • Adaptive — able to adjust to different conditions.
  • Coherent — clear, logical, and unifying.
  • Energized — having vitality and enthusiasm.
  • Stable — firmly established, not easily upset, not likely to give way.

This is how Siegel describes a healthy brain-mind (that is, the mind considered from a neurobiological perspective). It is a mind that “flows” optimally in between chaos (disorganization) on one side and rigidity (over-organization) on the other. What I find compelling is that these five (FACES) brain-mind functions aptly describe an emotionally intelligent leader as well. Emotionally intelligent leaders apparently have healthy, integrated brain-minds.

Who would not like to work for (or with) a person who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energetic, and yet Stable — in other words, emotionally intelligent? Contrarily, who wants people in their organization — not the least of whom, their leader — who possesses the opposite attributes, of being inflexible if not rigid, unable to adapt, incoherent (confused, unclear, and illogical), depressed, unmotivated, or unstable. Having someone like this would be notably time-consuming and costly.

If emotionally intelligent leaders apparently have healthy, well-integrated brain-minds, and integrated brain-minds make for transcendent leaders, how do we get a few of these brain-minds into our organization?

I often argue that is easier to hire a “star employee” than to develop one. That is why I spend a good bit of time in my consulting practice helping organizations hire best-fit — emotionally intelligent — people. It is relatively easy to find someone who has the right education, training, and even experience — especially in this current “buyers” market. It is much harder to find someone who is Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable — someone who has a healthy brain-mind, someone who is emotionally intelligent.

But it is rarely if ever possible to hire an entirely new company full of mentally integrated, emotionally intelligent people. We have to work with the employees, and owners, whom we have. This raises an important question: Can we retrain the brain? Fortunately the answer is YES, however it is a qualified yes. Retraining the brain is not easy and not everyone is willing or capable of doing it. Siegel and other neurobiologists agree that the brain is “elastic.” What they mean is that we can indeed recondition the brain — albeit with difficulty — to build new and better brain-mind integration. So how do we do this?

The better question might be, Where do we do this? Anatomically, we retrain the brain in the “middle prefrontal cortex.” At the “crossroads” between the limbic system, expressing our emotions, and the cortex, performing our thinking, the middle prefrontal cortex is involved with things like emotional balance, empathy, insight, fear extinction, intuition, and morality. And one key way to affect and eventually develop this part of the brain-mind is through awareness. When we raise people’s awareness we increase the proper functioning of this important region of the brain.

There are different ways to raise awareness in a business environment: the use of assessments, targeted workshops, and especially one-on-one coaching. There are other ways to affect this region of the brain-mind, which I will discuss in the second part of this article, in the next Win-Win newsletter.

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